Pasta sauce

Hey, Dad really likes pasta with sauce…or without sauce, actually. I could eat it every day probably. But then…well, caloric intake could start to get out of hand — you get it. When people ask me, “What do you like to cook?”, the first thing that comes to mind is pasta with sauce. Having Italian friends in high school who showed me that yes, there are other kinds of pasta besides spaghetti, and many hours studying my favorite Italian chefs on TV, plus 20 years or so of development, have made my pasta sauces fantastic — in my own mind — and simple, with tons of flavor. Remember, it’s about flavor.

Eldest daughter told me today that the next step for me is entering “cook-offs”—my chili, my cranberry relish, my pasta sauce. I’m not much interested, though—that might lead to a disappointing confrontation with reality. I’d rather share what I think I know with you, and let you figure out your own fantastic versions. Fame can come later.

These instructions are for a red sauce. I’ll do a white sauce in another post.

Step 1: Red or White?

No, not wine. Pasta sauce. Sure, this is an oversimplification, but that’s the whole idea of DRB. Let’s assume, for fun, there are two kinds of pasta sauce…red or white. Here’s how I decide which one to make. I make white sauce if the protein came out of the water: clams, shrimp, scallops. Or, if I’m making Alfredo sauce. For everything else, I make a red (tomatoey) sauce. If you want something more complicated (or imaginative!) than this, try another website.

Step 2: Protein

To meat, or not to meat. My favorite is probably Italian sausage. Using turkey Italian sausage, I avoid lots of fat calories. Whatever. To get more flavor, I sauté the meat well. Naturally, ground beef, or regular Italian sausage, or diced, cooked chicken, or meatloaf mix (ground beef, veal, and pork) are great. The most important thing is to brown it well over medium heat to do the caramelization thing. Use a pound of ground meat for 8 ounces of pasta. Serves 2-4, depending.

Step 3: The Pasta

I’ve heard more than once that it’s about the pasta, not the sauce. The meal is pasta, the sauce is decorative — it provides an accent to the regional dialect that is the pasta. I could be wrong about this, but it’s what I’ve heard. Somehow, many Americans have turned this on its head and made it all about the sauce. I’ve never made my own pasta — too intimidating —but hey, if all those Italian Nonnas could do it, well, I suppose I could at least try. I don’t have any advice about buying pasta, but which ever ones have a bit more flavor, I’d say go with those. Your thoughts?

I have never met a pasta shape I didn’t like. That said, I heard once on a TV cooking show that you should make some attempt to match the size of the meat pieces to the size and shape of the pasta and vegetables. This doesn’t work for spaghetti, obviously. With long, thin pasta, make meatballs for contrast. The point was that if you choose penne or bow-tie, etc., you ought to cut the onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, etc. to sort-of match. If you use ground turkey or beef as your meat, cut the veggies small. We’re talking aesthetics here…and texture. Experiment. There are no pasta police to get after you.

Once you select the pasta, cook it in lots of salted water. Lots of water, lots of salt. If the pasta will join the sauce and keep cooking, by all means under-cook the pasta by about 20%, compared to directions on the box, and let the cooking be completed in the sauce. Finally, what you do, SAVE A CUP OF THE PASTA WATER and set aside to hep thin the sauce if it needs it.

Step 4: The Sauce

Your pasta is cooking. Your ground turkey Italian sausage has been (really) browned and set aside in a bowl. Now, we pick up the pace.

  1. In olive oil and butter (equal parts) over medium heat (5-6 out of 10), saute onions and optionally, mushrooms, for about 5-8 minutes. This depends on how your stove interprets “medium.” Add minced or pressed garlic (as much as you can stand) about 30 seconds before you add the next ingredients.
  2. Add about 1/2 cup of red wine (good enough to drink) and 1/2 cup of chicken stock (or water, if you must).
  3. Add 1 tablespoon of dried basil (2T fresh). Add 1 teaspoon of dried oregano (2tsp fresh).
  4. Bring to a simmer. Cover. Cook for 10-12 minutes.
  5. Remove the cover. Your pasta will have been done for several minutes. You will have taken it off the stove, drained the pasta, saving at least 2 cups of the pasta water. Now, add the pasta to the sauce.
    Here’s the tricky bit. You have to manage the thickness of the sauce. After you do this dish a few times, you will be able to judge how thick the sauce should be after the simmering part. If it’s too thick, no problem, just add some of the saved pasta water. If it’s too thin, you’re going to have to cook it down (reduce it) with the cover off. This is tricky because the pasta and cheese (added in a minute) will absorb quite a bit of liquid. You don’t want to end up with sauce that’s too thick later and not have any pasta water to thin it out with, if you can help it. The pasta water is special because it’s salted, and it has the pasta starch in it, which makes it better. Trust me.
  6. When you get the sauce right and the pasta has been added and thoroughly coated with the sauce (This is all taking place in your sauté pan.) then, turn off the heat and add lots of grated parmesan cheese. Let that melt into the sauce a few minutes and you’re ready to serve. Between all the sauteing and the herbs and the cheese, you will have an incredibly rich and deeply flavorful dish.

More later. How about sharing your best ideas about pasta sauce! Arrivederci.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Pasta sauce – Dad’s Recipe Box | My Meals are on Wheels

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